Healthy Workplaces Today: New on-the-job safety solutions may be here to stay

iStock / Jossnatu / Ryccio / Elenabs / Mathisworks
iStock / Jossnatu / Ryccio / Elenabs / Mathisworks

In a single year, electrical contractors have redefined job-site safety—minimizing the risk of disease transmission while maintaining efforts to protect workers from injury. Indoor work, tasks that can’t be done while social distancing and interactions at crowded job sites all pose some level of risk for COVID-19 transmission. Project managers and supervisors use common sense, planning and various levels of technology to try to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus on the work site.

For those who are adopting technology to help manage work site safety, the industry seems to be in agreement that one eye needs to be on whether there are long-term benefits to any new system, long after the pandemic has passed.

The primary focus of work site safety continues to center around several efforts, said Wesley Wheeler, NECA’s director of safety. These efforts include proper spatial distancing, appropriate use of face coverings and other PPE, and exposure-control measures to keep all workers safe. Guidance is available for contractors to ensure COVID-19 safety, he said, including OSHA’s “Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” and plans developed by NECA. But the nature of the work means that versatility is paramount; every new project can mean different challenges.

“Each job site has unique concerns that must be addressed,” he said, adding that some existing techniques are screening protocols, wearing face coverings, staggering shifts, instituting one-way traffic patterns and limiting the number of workers in close proximity.

Wheeler noted that, in fact, construction sites in general have been some of the safest places to work, due in large part to safety professionals implementing proper control methods at work sites.

Beyond PPE use and on-site coordination, many employers also use apps for tracking, screening and collecting COVID-19 documentation. The goal is to provide safety while meeting individual privacy requirements from local, state and federal guidelines, Wheeler said.

That’s been the case across the trades and for general contractors as the pandemic’s challenges extended into a second year, said Dwight Klappich, research vice president and fellow at the research and advisory firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn.

“In the height of the pandemic [in 2020], companies were doing what they could with minimal or no investment because they had to get things done right then and there,” Klappich said of general contractors and subcontractors. Some of this effort might be manual workarounds or training.

As the pandemic continues into 2021, “I think companies will start to look for more systemic, technology-based solutions to enforce social distancing,” Klappich said.

He has found that there are two broad approaches to addressing social distancing across all work sites, including construction, logistics and manufacturing. The first approach is to track workers’ every movement, in real time, while the second is simply to encourage people to keep their distance while providing some contact-tracing insight if someone tests positive.

The first approach is one that Klappich calls more draconian, by “tracking every single thing every employee does, where they are at all times, who they are near.” In the past, unions and other worker groups balked at this type of employee-tracking, but the pandemic and safety concerns might temporarily change this mindset.

However, the alternate and less intrusive solution is a system that helps keep social distancing top-of-mind. Instead of using technology to enforce social distancing by keeping people separated, it could provide education and collect the basics of who was on-site and when.

Installing location systems

In some cases, electrical contractors are deploying either of these systems as part of construction projects. In the warehouse environment, for instance, real-time data is being installed to track people and the locations of other mobile assets. Traditionally, this has been limited to proprietary systems using one of a variety of technologies, but that could change as a result of the pandemic if one solution or technology pulls ahead of the others.

“Often there is a groundbreaking event that shatters previous barriers and something is introduced that would have historically not been acceptable,” Klappich said. One example was the introduction of video surveillance after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

If the pandemic lingers and social distancing becomes the norm, then real-time employee tracking might have some staying power, he added.

App-based construction site management

More common are less-intrusive measures that help managers collect and manage data about who is on-site and at what times. The software company Riskcast Solutions Inc., New York, for instance, was founded by former Skanska professionals to offer solutions for work site management, and now contact tracing as well, said Alec Thomson, Riskcast’s co-founder and CEO.

Thomson is no fan of technology deployment just for its own sake. He considers anything without long-term value to be negligible. On the other hand, he said, while COVID-19 funding is available for many larger companies, this may be the time to acquire technology that can provide solutions far beyond preventing COVID-19 transmissions.

He estimated that about 70% of the construction industry is still using pen and paper for recording critical data on-site, including time sheets. That’s due in part to the fact that the work is highly fragmented. Each project is different, so the data-input method varies and is configurable by the contractor.

The question contractors should ask, Thomson said, is whether an investment in technology could provide long-term value in tracking details such as worker hours, for better data management that will save costs and prevent errors in addition to contact tracing.

Riskcast offers a variety of tools, including one that tracks the presence and assignment of each member of each work crew, to provide historical data in the case of a positive COVID-19 test. In the past year, Riskcast has begun offering a feature with kiosk-type check-in and check-out, using a ruggedized tablet running the Riskcast app. Workers check in with a QR code scan providing a digital record of who was on-site and when. They can set the system to ask questions to identify if each employee was working safely.

Long Island City, N.Y.-based electrical contractor E-J Electric Installation Co. is among those using the Riskcast system. It provides the company with time sheets, production tracking, employee safety certifications and, most recently, time and materials (T&M) ticketing. The foreman inputs the data and a project manager uses Riskcast for reporting, said Anthony E. Mann, E-J Electric’s president and CEO.

As E-J Electric has adapted to the new reality of coronavirus-based safety issues, he said, “we were fortunate to already have had software solutions in place like Riskcast to manage our workforce remotely.”

“Safety has always been E-J’s top priority. There is a network of people internally focused on making sure we are following all COVID guidelines,” Mann said.

Another solution comes from BuildCenter Inc., Campbell, Calif.—a contact tracing system created by its own sister companies, labor firm CleanRoom Buildings Inc., and general contractor Cobe Inc., Campbell, Calif. The Silicon Valley company has since released the app for use by contractors at no cost during the pandemic.

The company has been developing software for nearly two decades, said Shaun Olson, BuildCenter’s co-founder and president. Its contact-tracing solution launched in late April and was initially released to all contractors in June. Its first-tier app remains free throughout the pandemic. Workers answer customized, daily questions on exposure using the app. A foreman can also fill out the data for their crew, while company administration can access that data or search and sort by person and by date.

The pro (second-tier) version, which has an automatic trigger feature, is not free. If users respond to a question such as, “Do you have a headache?” with a yes, an email can be sent to someone to contact that person.

In either case, “The key benefit is it keeps COVID-19 safety top of mind on-site,” Olson said. The second benefit is the ability to quickly contain the spread. If an exposure occurs, someone pulls up a search in the app, interviews the worker and creates a list of those who might need to be contacted. Already hundreds of companies in the United States and Canada are using the app.

HID Global, Austin, Texas, offers a more extensive and data-rich solution that can pinpoint the general location of workers automatically in real time and historically for contract tracing, said Mark Robinton, HID Global’s vice president of the IoT services business unit.

Its Bluetooth beacons can be plugged into AC power around a site and then can track Bluetooth fobs carried by workers. The system was first launched at 30 different sites within Assa Abloy, HID Global’s parent company in Stockholm, all using it to keep operations going in assembly and manufacturing.

The focus, Robinton said, is to make the system easy to install and flexible; the more beacons a contractor plugs in, the more granular the location data will be.

“The vast majority of customers buy the infrastructure because it’s relatively inexpensive. Most are buying the hardware and then paying us on a software as a service basis,” he said.

The technology can be deployed at a temporary work site, using Bluetooth to track individuals carrying fobs for safety and mustering and, more recently, for contact tracing. It also automates time and attendance.

“One of the advantages we have is it’s built on a system we already provided,” Robinton said.

If technology can keep a work site open after a positive COVID-19 test, it pays for itself quickly, said Matt Edwards, co-founder and CEO of Nyfty.AI Inc., Dover, Del. The consequences for workers of having to isolate can mean a huge loss of income, never mind the risk of getting sick.

Nyfty.AI started building its Health Survey Bot around mid-April 2020, and had an early version released and in use in California, Massachusetts and Utah by mid-May.

“It’s used to conduct a ‘prescreening’ questionnaire with workers, either by a general contractor for their job site, or by trade to survey their staff,” Edwards said.

It works over SMS text messages, so there’s no apps to download or passwords to set up. Once the bot has conducted the survey with a worker, it analyzes the responses and only escalates any issues to a human if necessary.

Nyfty.AI started out with Manpower Bot, launched in Oct 2019, that understands plain English sentences and turn them into manpower logs in Procore.

“But since building Health Survey Bot, we’ve worked with customers to build more safety focused automations such as Attendance Bot, Broadcast Bot, Inspections Bot, Reminders Bot and Hazard Bot,” Edwards said. All these bots work over SMS and are designed to automate processes that involve humans.

“We’ve had trade customers and the number is growing, mainly electrical and mechanical contractors who use Health Survey Bot and Inspections Bot to keep their employees safe,” Edwards said.

Like the rest of those interviewed, Edwards hopes the pandemic ends soon, but there are some positives that have come out of it, he added, with “one being more focus on keeping workers healthy, including avoiding the flu and generally not spreading illness on job sites or between staff.”

In the long run, he said, “we think health screening is here to stay, albeit with less of a COVID focus.”

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